Naked City

Energy bill: it ain't all pork

The Bush Energy Bill, signed into law last week, bestows the oil, gas, and coal industries with billions in far-reaching tax handouts – even as oil companies continue to break all-time profit records, and evidence of the ecological and social peril posed by fossil-based energy sources continues to mount. The law designates disproportionately less for renewable energy development and efficiency efforts, and takes some arguably counterproductive steps aimed at diminishing our insatiable thirst for imported oil.

Texas' own Rep. Joe Barton, R-Ennis, presided over the bill's passage as chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The Union of Concerned Scientists criticized Barton's leadership of House opposition to a national renewable portfolio standard, an amendment passed in the Senate for the third time in four years that mandates that the U.S. get 10% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020. Among the even more egregious aspects of the energy bill is its failure to increase auto fuel efficiency standards, efforts ardently opposed by many Republicans and the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. A provision in the bill nullifies lawsuits filed against the Department of Transportation by public interest groups over the "dual fuel loophole," which gives automakers credits for boosting fuel economy for making their cars capable of running on alternative fuels like ethanol – even though they're actually fueled with petroleum 99% of the time, according to a DOT study. Public Citizen predicts that gasoline consumption will actually increase by 15-billion gallons over the next 10 years because of the loophole.

Most media reports focused on the bill's creation of a renewable fuel standard by highlighting ethanol, a corn-based alternative fuel that's a well-known net energy loser, meaning it requires more energy input than it creates in output. What's obscured is that the standard also applies to net energy winner biodiesel, another biofuel that's typically made from soy beans or recycled cooking oil and is readily usable in any diesel engine. Biodiesel advocates applaud the bill's extension of a federal excise tax credit established by the 2004 JOBS Creation Act. The credit provides credits per-percentage of biodiesel blended into regular diesel.

Moving further in the right direction, the energy bill includes tax credits to homeowners and businesses installing solar panels, and simplifies billing when their homemade energy is tied back into the electric grid. It also extends previous production tax credits for wind, biomass, geothermal, and landfill gas-derived energy, establishes tax breaks for hybrid electric car buyers, and helps alleviate the bottleneck of insufficient power-line capacity to exploit the nations' huge wind power potential. It also addresses efficiency in appliances and buildings more closely and will extend daylight savings time in 2007. It doesn't release producers of the highly toxic gasoline additive MTBE from legal liabilities, something entertained by the House bill. Contro-versial provisions for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve in Alaska were left out, but sneaky Republicans reportedly plan to bring it up in a later congressional scenario where Democratic filibusters aren't applicable.

At a more pronounced risk, however, is the nation's shoreline. The energy bill calls for a billion-dollar coastal oil exploration study, a measure the Natural Resources Defense Council expects will streamline massive drilling operations on protected shores. At the same time, the bill grants federal authorities the power to overrule states and municipalities in the location of liquified natural gas terminals. With LNG imports rapidly growing, scores of terminals needed to receive behemoth tankers and convert the supercooled LNG back to gas are being planned near coastal cities. Aside from being prime terrorist targets, capable of emitting a nearly mile-wide fireball if exploded, the "open rack" regasification method commonly used at terminals in warmer climates devastates fisheries and aquatic ecosystems. The provision will likely quash legions of community and fisherman groups desperately opposing the LNG facilities.

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